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  • Jackie Azúa Kramer, interviewed by Jonah Kramer

How did MANOLO AND THE UNICORN come to be?

Ah, peeling the onion of inspiration isn’t always straightforward. I believe I was reading mentor texts about odd friendship stories and bouncing around ideas like what if a koala and a kangaroo met. When Jonah shared that as a young boy he was teased for coloring with a purple crayon. I never knew this. It upset me to think that at such a young age, he navigated questions of his identity. I remembered that Jonah, as a child loved mythology, especially unicorns. Keeping in mind the idea of the odd friendship, we started talking about a boy who loved unicorns but was teased about it. And what if, the boy actually encountered a unicorn. In that moment, we envisioned the whole story. Then the hard work began.

What was it like to collaborate for the first time with another writer?

Covid had just hit and Jonah, an actor, was now home from touring. So, our collaboration was a nice distraction from reality. It was an interesting time for imagination and allowing seeds of ideas to grow and bloom. I thought the mother-son relationship might affect our work together. But writing can be a lonely business, so it was fun having someone to help develop and discuss the story. I would write a section and email it to Jonah. Then Jonah would revise and send his revision back to me. And vice versa, he’d write a section, and I’d revise. Under one roof it was easy to work together. For example, I remember us working late into the night, and it felt perfectly normal sitting around in our pajamas.

MANOLO AND THE UNICORN touches upon a child’s sense of self and identity. Can you speak to that?

In the story, Manolo believes the world is a magical place. He loves exploring in the natural world and loves unicorns most of all. Manolo is truly and authentically himself until someone tells him otherwise. Jonah and I learned from our research that unicorns only appear to those pure of heart. That element strengthened and weaved well into our theme of identity. Identity encompasses the memories, experiences, relationships, and values that shape one’s sense of self. One’s identity is made up of big and small things – everything from one’s hair, who one prays to, who one loves, the food one eats, to the families and neighborhoods one grows  up in.

What do you hope will be the takeaway for young readers?

The more a child feels seen, the more they feel valued; the less a child feels seen, the less they feel that they matter. We hope the book lifts children up and supports their positive identity.

 

  • Jonah Kramer, interviewed by Jackie Azúa Kramer

What was it like to write a book for the first time? And what was it like to work with your mom?

Ever since I was a kid we would read children’s books together and we would each take turns giving the characters different voices. I never imagined that one day I would be writing a children’s book with my mom instead of just reading them. The challenge as a first time writer was finding a way to channel and refine my ideas into a story. Many times, one of us would have an idea and we would riff off each other talking about all the different ways we could take the story. Working with my mom I got to see the craftsmanship that goes into writing a children’s book. She knows how to take a concept and think about it both as a writer and through the eyes of a child, which I think is an invaluable skill.

 How did negative childhood experiences impact your identity?

For our yearbook, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Without hesitation, I said, “a Disney princess.” When the yearbook came out it said “actor” and not “Disney princess”, which ironically set me on my path to becoming an actor. But it was not my honest answer and taught me that there are certain things that our culture was not willing to let me express about myself. As I was writing the story, it hit me how damaging it was to have that experience at such a formative age.

How has your work as an actor effected how you write?

When writing I would often imagine the text in my head as if someone was performing it. It would help me to act out parts of the book as in a script. For example, my mom and I, spent time going over the details of Manolo’s first sighting of the Unicorn and I remember acting out for her what that greeting might look like. My three act play depicting this interaction didn’t entirely make it into the final story, lol. I think part of the reason we worked well together is that we both have theatre backgrounds.

We decided to stick very closely to the mythology about unicorns. How did that become an important theme in the book and how did that shape the characters of both the Unicorn and Manolo?

I would lose myself for hours imagining that I had magical powers, that I had a team of Pokémon, or that I was exploring the distant planets in Star Wars and its creatures. I would even draw my own characters with names and their own magical mythology. So the magical thinking of children was important in the story. However, everything was still rooted in realism. Manolo is a boy with a family that goes to school and has all the experiences that come with that. The sadness and aloneness Manolo feels when he’s teased by classmates for liking and believing in unicorns. Unicorn mythology often describes them as creatures who only show themselves to those who are pure of heart. Manolo sees the magic in everything, and he can find the extraordinary in the ordinary, which makes for the perfect friendship between these two characters.

What do you hope the takeaway for young readers will be?

I wish that I had a book like Manolo and the Unicorn when I was a kid. It might have changed the way I thought about myself and given me reassurance that I can use that purple marker, that I can be a Disney princess if I wanted to. Still waiting for the offer from Disney. There aren’t enough books for kids like me to see themselves reflected in. I hope that all creators in all mediums continue to write more stories for kids that reinforce the idea that all parts of us are beautiful.


Jackie Azúa Kramer is an award-winning and internationally translated children’s book author. Her picture books include THE GREEN UMBRELLA, 2017 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year; IF YOU WANT TO FALL ASLEEP; a 2021 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award winner, THE BOY AND THE GORILLA; I WISH YOU KNEW, Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Books 2021 and 2021. Parents’ Magazine Raising the Future Book Club Pick; MILES WON’T SMILE and Junior Library Guild Gold Selection, DOROTHY AND HERBERT: AN ORDINARY COUPLE AND THEIR EXTRAORDINARY COLLECTION OF ART. Her upcoming picture books releasing in 2023 are WE ARE ONE, EMPANADAS FOR EVERYONE and BOOGIE IN THE BRONX. Visit her online at Jackieazuakramer.com, on Twitter @jackiekramer422 and Instagram @jackie_azua_kramer.

Jonah Kramer is a New York City-based actor, singer, dancer, and now children’s book author. He has traveled as a performer both nationally and internationally. He is delighted to coauthor his first book with his amazing mom. Find him online at JonahKramer.com and follow him on Instagram @jonahekramer.

 

Jackie and Jonah are giving away two copies of MANOLO AND THE UNICORN (when it releases on April 18), one copy each to two winners.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Jackie Azúa Kramer

I WISH YOU KNEW…

…is a story about a little girl Estrella and her classmates that explores divided families, homelessness and food insecurity, plus the importance of meaningful connections at school.

In the story, illustrated by Magdalena Mora, a little girl’s father is deported. She wishes people knew how much she misses him and how it affects her at home and school.

I wish you knew…

…I’m a big fan of Ted Talks, like the one with an educator who felt she was making little progress with her students, so she decided to ask them a question. They were to complete this statement on a piece of paper: “I wish my teacher knew…”

She was astonished by their answers. She realized she couldn’t teach kids who felt sad, hungry, scared and angry. It reminded me of my time working as a school counselor in Queens. Creating a community of meaningful classroom relationships based on compassion, respect and kindness needs to be established before students are open to learn.

The heart of Estrella’s story in I WISH YOU KNEW was inspired by my father’s immigrant journey from Ecuador—the emotional cost he paid, and the courage it took, to leave his family and country to come to a new world with the hope of making a better life for himself, just like Estrella’s father.

I wish you knew…

…that young readers can be activists for good. Like Estrella, and her classmates in IWYK, one can be agents of change. Together with kindness, respect and hope one can help to be the change you want to see.

I wish you knew…

…as a writer, I’m interested in stories and characters that reflect our common humanity. Stories which allow readers to interact with it, feel something and ask questions. To write picture books with a more inclusive representation of families in this country. I’m thrilled that there’s a Spanish edition of I WISH YOU KNEW, Ojalá Supieras.

I wish you knew…

…if there’s one concrete craft tip I can share is to apply your five senses when writing. Sight, smell, sound, touch and taste can add much dimension to your writing and leaves room for illustrative narration. We are writing picture books!

In addition, I tend to write in stanzas between 4-6 lines of text. When it comes to editing, nothing beats cutting and pasting your text into stanzas to trim the fat and get to the meat of the story. In addition, like a haiku, one can begin to play with unique and perfect word choices.

I wish you knew…

…This fall I’m looking forward to readers discovering DOROTHY AND HERBERT: ORDINARY PEOPLE AND THEIR EXTRAORDINARY COLLECTION OF ART. It’s my first non-fiction picture book about a librarian and postal clerk who collected modern art in a one-bedroom NY apartment, and then gave it all away to the National Gallery.

And MILES WON’T SMILE—a funny picture book about a little girl who can’t get her new baby brother to smile for her.


I WISH YOU KNEW will be released by Roaring Brook Press on May 25, 2021.

The first 50 people to preorder IWYK from Word Up Community Bookshop will win this giveaway of 11×19 color print and signed bookplate! Visit Word Up Books here.


Jackie is an award-winning and internationally translated children’s author. She earned her MA in Counseling in Education, Queens College. She is a member of the Bank Street Writers Lab. Her picture books include, THE GREEN UMBRELLA, “2017 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year,” IF YOU WANT TO FALL ASLEEP and her newest THE BOY AND THE GORILLA which received three starred reviews described by Kirkus as “Luminous.”

Her upcoming picture books releasing between 2021-2022 are: I WISH YOU KNEW/OJALÁ SUPIERAS; DOROTHY AND HERBERT: An Ordinary Couple and their Extraordinary Collection of Art; WE ARE ONE; MANOLO AND THE UNICORN and MILES WON’T SMILE.

She lives with her family in Long Island, NY. When not writing, you’ll find her reading, watching old movies and traveling to her family’s roots in Ecuador, Puerto Rico and Spain. Visit her online at Jackieazuakramer.com, on Twitter @jackiekramer422 and Instagram @jackie_azua_kramer.

by Jackie Azúa Kramer

I’m inspired and emotionally moved by what’s happening in the world today. Children are living through challenging and difficult times in many ways. I have the utmost respect for young readers, and I strive not to talk down to them.

In THE BOY AND THE GORILLA, I had known this lovely family from úmy neighborhood with two adorable, little sisters. I had them over once for a very messy tea party. It was their father who was killed by a falling tree while attempting to drive his family to a safer location during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

My inspiration for the story was imagining the metaphorical idiom “the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room” come to life. I leave it to the reader to decide—the gorilla might represent the pain and feelings that the Boy is experiencing from the death of his mother. I envisioned a conversation between the Boy and the Gorilla, a series of questions and answers on death and grief.

I come from, like all of us, a diverse tapestry of experiences in my faith, race, culture, society and politics, all of which influences and inspires my work. As a Latina, it’s not lost on me that twenty-five percent of kids in schools today are Latinx.

In I WISH YOU KNEW (May 2021) a little girl’s father is deported. She wishes people knew how much she misses him and how it affects her at home and school. But with the help of her teacher, they start a sharing circle where her and her classmates share their challenges and by listening with compassion and kindness, together they all help each other.

We’ve all heard many times that inspiration is everywhere; one just has to be open to it. More than that, seek it. Be aware, available and surround yourself by it. Trust the muse, work with it and fearlessly, fall in love with it.

I WISH YOU KNEW was influenced not only by my culture but also inspired by a TED talk. An educator shared, how after feeling she was making little progress with her students, she asked them to complete the statement on a piece of paper, I wish my teacher knew…

The students’ responses changed everything for her.

She discovered she could not teach to kids who feel sad, hungry, scared and angry. The need to create a community of meaningful classroom relationships based on compassion, respect and kindness would have to established before the students were open to learn.

More and more, I feel responsible as a creator to turn these real-life observations into stories that tell a fuller and truer history yet leave room for the reader to ask questions and interact with the story. Never forgetting that a child’s need to be understood, accepted and loved is a universal feeling. We need to meet children where they are with hope and love.

Jackie is an award-winning and internationally translated children’s author. She earned her MA in Counseling in Education, Queens College. She is a member of the Bank Street Writers Lab. Her picture books include, THE GREEN UMBRELLA, “2017 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year,” IF YOU WANT TO FALL ASLEEP and her newest THE BOY AND THE GORILLA which received three starred reviews described by Kirkus as “Luminous.”

Her upcoming picture books releasing between 2021-2022 are: I WISH YOU KNEW/OJALÁ SUPIERAS; DOROTHY AND HERBERT: An Ordinary Couple and their Extraordinary Collection of Art; WE ARE ONE; MANOLO AND THE UNICORN and MILES WON’T SMILE.

She lives with her family in Long Island, NY. When not writing, you’ll find her reading, watching old movies and traveling to her family’s roots in Ecuador, Puerto Rico and Spain. Visit her online at Jackieazuakramer.com, on Twitter @jackiekramer422 and Instagram @jackie_azua_kramer.

Jackie is giving away one copy of THE BOY AND THE GORILLA and one copy of I WISH YOU KNEW.

Two separate winners will be randomly selected.

Leave one comment below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

In all the blog posts I’ve published in the last 13 years, I’ve never delved into one subject because I thought it was near impossible to successfully broach it in a picture book. But author Jackie Azùa Kramer has, and the result is miraculous.

The subtle coloring on the cover by illustrator Cindy Derby should give you a clue as to what awaits inside.

Jackie, death is the toughest subject to discuss with children. Why did you want to venture into that territory?

Sadly, the story was inspired by true events as a result of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 which left two little sisters fatherless. But if it’s all the same with you, Tara, I’d like to reframe your question.

Why not write stories that reflect a diversity of experiences that children are facing today? We are living through challenging and difficult times on so many levels. I have the utmost respect for young readers, and I strive not to talk down to them. I feel we need to meet children where they are with hope and love.

As a creator, I’m inspired and emotionally moved by what’s happening in the world today. Children around the world are living unique and diverse experiences. I’m encouraged to see more of these books published recently. Books which allow children to see themselves…their lives reflected in books. We all have a need to be understood, accepted and loved.

In the story, the gorilla represents the boy’s deep grief and sadness at the passing of his mother. Why a gorilla? Was this your first choice for the metaphor?

Yes. The Gorilla character came to mind as a I learned about how some children are affected by loss. In the story the loss of the boy’s mother left him confused about the complex feelings he was experiencing along with the questions he had about death and dying. However, his unspoken feelings become the metaphorical idiom of the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room. It was a fascinating visual to imagine this huge and imposing gorilla who’s also kind, honest and supportive.

What does it mean to you to have three starred reviews (so far)?

Tara, I’d be a pompous ass if I didn’t admit that it feels good. And you know, as much as me, if not more, about receiving great reviews! However, the reasons it feels good to me goes beyond the good reviews and stars.

It’s also about all one’s hard work being acknowledged, as well as, the village that made the book possible. Agent, illustrator, editor, art director, sales and marketing…each played an important role.

And in the end, all that matters is that books gets into the hands of readers. That books are read over and over, pages get worn and dog-eared and tucked under pillows. That books make readers feel something. Feelings of joy or sadness, happy, silly or even mad. Perhaps thoughtful or dreamy and wondrous. That each page turn is like a theatrical experience. That stories welcome readers and say, “Come on in, all are welcome, understood and accepted.”

Then we as creators have done our jobs well.

What I’ve learned from reading THE BOY AND THE GORILLA is that we writers shouldn’t shy away from subjects just because they are difficult. Children experience the width and breadth of the world, just like we do, and they deserve answers. They need to be heard and understood. This book fills a void by bringing comfort to children who are struggling to cope with loss. 

Blog readers, you can win a copy of THE BOY AND THE GORILLA by Jackie Azùa Kramer and Cindy Derby.

Leave one comment below.

A random winner will be selected soon.

Good luck!

 


Jackie is an award-winning and internationally translated children’s author. She earned her MA in Counseling in Education, Queens College. She has worked as an actor, singer, and school counselor. She is a member of the Bank Street Writers Lab. Her picture books include, The Green Umbrella, “2017 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year”. If You Want to Fall Asleep and That’s for Babies. Jackie’s upcoming books- I Wish You Knew (Roaring Brook, 2021); Dorothy and Herbert- The Story of the Postal Clerk and the Librarian and their Extraordinary Collection of Art (Cameron Kids, 2021); We Are One (Two Lions/Amazon,TBD); Manolo and the Unicorn (Cameron Kids, TBD) and Miles Won’t Smile (Clavis, TBD). She lives with her family in Long Island, NY. When not writing, you’ll find her reading, watching old movies and traveling to her family’s roots in Ecuador, Puerto Rico and Spain. Visit her at jackieazuakramer.com.

by Jackie Azúa Kramer

It was my daughter Daisy’s kindergarten graduation, and I had bought a lovely dress for the occasion. At least I thought so. However, that morning she took one glance at the sparkly frock and said, “That’s for babies!” From that moment on, those words became her mantra. All that Daisy had loved and treasured was dropped in a box of cast-off toys.

I never imagined that day would come so soon. I was used to Daisy saying, “I can do it myself!” She had claimed her badge of independence from the day she was born. But this felt different. It was as if she had grabbed the keys to the car without telling me where she was going. In my mind, all I heard was, “See you, Mom. I got places to go and people to meet.”

And what a journey it’s been! They call it “raising” a child, but I feel my kids “raised” me, too. I am not the same person or mother today. I’ve grown, evolved and changed right alongside my children. Here’s what–change doesn’t come easy. Letting go can be scary and sometimes hurts. But love, kindness and understanding has been my North Star.

This June is Daisy’s wedding! Goodness, did I just say that?! And with any luck, one day soon, some little person will look up to her and say, “That’s for babies!”

In THAT’S FOR BABIES!, on the morning of little Prunella’s birthday, she announces she’s a big girl, and ready for adventure. But one dark and stormy night, she discovers that growing up is a series of small milestones…two steps forward and one step back.

And here’s the book trailer premiere!

THAT’S FOR BABIES! releases June 25th…but you can win a copy right here!

Leave one comment below. A winner will be randomly chosen at the end of the month!

Good luck!


Jackie Azúa Kramer studied acting and voice at NYU and earned her MA, Queens College, Counseling in Education. Jackie has worked as an actor, singer, and school counselor. Her work with children presented her an opportunity to address their concerns, secrets and hopes through storytelling. Now she spends her time writing children’s picture books. Her picture books include, the award-winning The Green Umbrella (2017 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year), If You Want to Fall Asleep and That’s for Babies. Upcoming books- The Boy and the Eight Hundred Pound Gorilla (Candlewick, 2020); I Wish You Knew (Roaring Brook, 2021); We Are One (Two Lions, TBD); Miles Won’t Smile (Clavis, TBD).

Jackie lives with her family in Long Island, NY. When not writing, you’ll find Jackie reading, watching old movies and globe trekking.

Visit her at JackieAzuaKramer.com, Twitter @jackiekramer422, Facebook Jackie Azúa Kramer & Instagram JackieAzuaKramer

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